Year in Review

The year 2020 was dominated by a single topic – COVID-19 – with most of the world adjusting to a difficult new reality. What was the pandemic’s impact on children and young people growing up without parental care or in families already struggling to stay together? What have we learned and how can we respond better to the new pressures they are facing?

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a global pandemic. With mortality occurring primarily in older adults, it seemed at first that children and young people were being spared. Parents exhaled. But by year’s end, it became clear that the pandemic and the measures associated with containing the virus – school closures, lockdowns and physical distancing – were taking an extreme toll on children and young people and their overall well-being. Many witnessed the death of a parent or grandparent with no opportunity to say goodbye. Many experienced isolation, anxiety and depression – in families under increased economic strain and pressure. Children growing up without strong, supportive environments were even more likely to have their rights violated, especially due to the suspension of or lack of access to social services. The statistics are staggering. To name just a few: 85 million more children have been put at risk of physical, sexual, and emotional violence; schools closed for nearly 1.5 billion children and young people, with 31% unable to access remote learning and an estimated 24 million dropping out altogether. Children living in poverty were at even greater risk of becoming engaged in labour or exploitation as a means of supporting their families.


Child-focused organizations worldwide called for child protection and family welfare to be at the centre of governments’ pandemic response and for child rights to be upheld. The focus has been on ensuring access to food and healthcare including mental health and psychosocial support, as well as appropriate care, protection and education. At the UN General Assembly Special Session on COVID-19, SOS Children’s Villages, together with UNICEF and other partners, advocated for countries to ensure children were priority. Encouragingly, important steps to include the voices of children in these discussions have been achieved. One promising example is the #CovidUnder19 initiative, coordinated by Terre des hommes in collaboration with children and young people, and with UN stakeholders, academics and around 30 organizations. More than 26,000 children worldwide responded to the initiative’s Life Under Coronavirus survey, giving insights into how their lives have been affected by COVID-19. The results were shared with governments and are feeding into our understanding of how we can best support children during the pandemic.



For children and young people growing up without the support and safety net of a stable family environment, the pandemic has added yet another layer of pressure and another obstacle on their journey to becoming strong adults. Research proves what our own common sense tells us: children develop best in the context of safe and healthy family relationships. From infancy through adolescence and into their transition to independence, all children need a reliable adult caregiver they can trust and turn to for guidance. But this year, an estimated 1 in 10 children worldwide navigated the new challenges of COVID-19 basically on their own. Families already struggling to stay together were put under further strain, making an environment for safe and healthy relationships more difficult and increasing the likelihood of children losing parental care. The drivers for child-family separation are complex and generally include a multitude of factors, such as: death or poor health of a parent or caregiver; violence, abuse and neglect; poverty; substance abuse; migration; lack of access to education; lack of social networks; and incarceration. Nearly all of these areas were negatively affected this year as either a direct or indirect consequence of the pandemic.

A country is not only made up of adults, we children exist and should be heard as well.


— Girl, Costa Rica, #CovidUnder19 survey


Especially concerning for us at SOS Children’s Villages is the number of children whose parents or grandparents have died due to COVID-19. As of 31 December 2020, an estimated minimum of 700,000 children had lost a parent, grandparent or other adult primary caregiver. Many teenagers and young adults just starting out on their own were forced to take on the role of caregiver and breadwinner for their younger siblings. Grandparents, who play a crucial role in many societies as either direct caregiver or general family helper, were more likely to succumb to the virus, leaving families to both mourn their loss and cope with less support. Many of these children may suffer long-term effects from the trauma of a lost loved one; many families will be further strained due to the loss of a caregiver; and many children who do not have support networks or extended family will be in need of quality alternative care that supports their development – at a time when governments are struggling with the economic fallout of the pandemic.






Indeed, governments in some countries responded to the COVID-19 crisis by reducing or closing residential care services. For many children and young people in alternative care – 80% of whom have at least one living parent – this meant a hurried and often unprepared return to their biological families, often without the underlying conditions for their original placement in care being addressed. A recent study expressed concern that rapid returns were made without appropriate preparation, support, and monitoring to ensure child safety or family stability. In our own programmes, many young people who had formally left care had their plans for internships, jobs or further studies put on hold or cancelled as a result of the pandemic. Without family to lean on, many of these care leavers returned to our youth homes for extended stays. Young people have repeatedly identified the gap in government support for care leavers as they transition out of care and into independence. Increased financial and housing support was one of their major asks at the first International Care Leavers Convention in November, which was led by care leavers and supported by SOS Children’s Villages along with partners. A silver lining of the pandemic: the event, originally intended to be in person, was able to have a much broader reach once it moved online, connecting care leavers, policymakers and researchers from 80 countries.

The important thing is to analyze the experience of the

pandemic from the perspective of young people.


-Luis, 17, speaking at the high-level launch of #CovidUnder19 global survey findings


The COVID-19 crisis has had a profound effect on the mental health of children and youth: worldwide, 25% experienced clinically elevated levels of depression, double that of pre-pandemic levels. Isolation from peers, disruption of routines, additional tensions in the home and overall anxiety about the virus were by-products of the pandemic not immediately visible. For children and young people without parental care or at risk of losing it, the mental health toll is likely higher. The majority of children in alternative care have experienced some form of trauma before entering the care system. In our own programmes, we have seen that the stress and anxiety of the pandemic have in some cases compounded pre-existing mental health issues, triggering past fears and emotions not yet fully processed. While we have been increasingly focusing on mental health, the pandemic underlined how important it is for parents and care practitioners to be “trauma-informed” – that is, making the connections between the challenges in a child’s past and their behaviour in the present. This year, we continued to build and expand our programmatic pillar on trauma-informed care for our own staff and beyond. Being trauma-informed holds true for parents as well. With the pandemic’s additional burdens on families, it is critical that parents receive as much mental health support as possible, so they can focus on caring for children, rather than the other way around.


For many children and youth, staying at home due to lockdowns did not equate to staying safe. In interviews with children at the height of the first wave, 81% saw an increase in violence at home, online, or in their community. Additional stress on families triggered by the rise in unemployment and the loss of livelihood is strongly linked with higher risk of violence against children. With movement restrictions, social isolation and school closures added to the mix, high-stress home environments are created. This can lead to increased child abuse, neglect and abandonment, resulting in the need for emergency or longer-term alternative care. In our family strengthening programmes this year, we learned that the groundwork laid prior to COVID-19 helped most families to withstand the added pressures of the pandemic and not resort to violence. That groundwork included workshops on how to use non-violent discipline with children, psychological counseling to help parents deal with their own traumas, as well as other measures to reduce strain, such as livelihood support and help in accessing services. Now more than ever, families at risk of breaking down need additional support. By addressing the root causes of child-family separation, government and society can help families to stay together and ensure that children grow up in safe and healthy family relationships.


While COVID-19 has undeniably set child rights back, we know what the levers are to getting back on track: working in partnership, across sectors, with children and young people leading the way. Also, let us not forget the progress that was made in spite of the pandemic and the new opportunities that arose. In 2020, Guinea, Japan and Seychelles joined the list of countries and territories that outlaw corporal punishment of children, even in the home, bringing the total to 61. Countries worldwide began implementing the 2019 UN Resolution on the Rights on the Child, which holds great promise for improving the lives of children without parental care or at risk of losing it. So too does the digital transformation taking place as a result of COVID-19. For us, this means an increased capacity for knowledge-sharing; more opportunities for collecting data – key to helping governments understand the benefits of investing in families and providing quality care; and a step on the way to reducing the digital divide that became so clear this year. Most importantly, it provides children and youth with more opportunities to speak up and get involved, paving the way for a future that is more inclusive and participatory. Children and young people are the experts of their lives. Today, they are organizing themselves, making specific recommendations to governments and leading change. We are very encouraged to see their voices being heard by decision-makers more and more. Now is the time to include them in setting the agenda.




slipped into poverty due to the pandemic

(source: UNICEF)


of youth worldwide experienced clinically elevated depression symptoms

(source: JAMA Pediatrics)


children lost a primary caregiver to COVID-19

(source: The Lancet)


were at risk of physical, sexual, and emotional violence

(source: World Vision)


worldwide were unable to access remote learning

(source: UNICEF)


may not return to school post-pandemic

(source: UNESCO)


increase in domestic violence during lockdowns

(source: UNFPA)

4 IN 10

adults in the US reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse

(source: CDC)

13 million 

more estimated child marriages over next ten years due to the pandemic

(source: UNFPA)



It is important that people all over the world know what a care leaver is, and what they are struggling with in life.

— Fabienne, 24, Austria

The coronavirus threatens me and creates in me a kind of insecurity.

— Olivier, 18, Burundi

I miss my friends a lot. I miss getting up to mischief. But sharing meals and doing activities with my family has also been fun.

— Franck, 15, Peru

I would tell politicians when they are making laws to do that with the heart of mothers and not of politicians.

— Girl, 12, Bolivia, #CovidUnder19 survey

Being in good health is precious.

— Amira, 10, Morocco

Do you not want to live in a world where no young person has to suffer from depression?

— Ronalyn, 23, Philippines, Youth Power project

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